Evaluating Teaching – Can Pupils Objectively Judge the Quality of Teaching?

Evaluating Teaching – Can Pupils Objectively Judge the Quality of Teaching?

With the publication of the latest version of Education Scotland’s school self-evaluation tool came the announcement that there would also be a version of the document aimed at pupils.1 The purpose, apparently, is to involve pupils in evaluating teaching. Understandably, this has caused considerable consternation amongst teaching professionals. Yet while it has been acknowledged that some teachers may feel uncomfortable about this, the official message appears to be: ‘Tough, you’re just going to have to get on with it.’

Why involve pupils in evaluating teaching?

In our increasingly service-based culture, performance targets and customer evaluations are ubiquitous. Even a simple online purchase or trip to a restaurant usually results in energetic requests for feedback. Any commercial organisation with an eye on high-quality delivery exhorts its employees to listen to its customers. As pupils are the quasi-customers of schools and witness first-hand a teacher’s performances in the classroom, perhaps it’s not surprising that this ethos is now pervading the education system.

But it’s not just about evaluating the teacher’s performance at the front of the class. It’s also about giving pupils opportunities to provide feedback about their own progress.

Can pupils really be objective?

In theory, it may seem obvious that pupils should have some say in how they are educated. However, there are many who have considerable reservations about allowing pupils’ opinions to hold much – if any – sway when it comes to school inspections, on the basis that pupils will not be sufficiently objective.

Most of us had a favourite teacher at school. How many of us, though, as adults still believe that individual was their best teacher? Evidence suggests that the correlation between the most popular teacher – often the one who puts on a show every time they stand in front of the class – and the highest quality of teaching is much weaker than we would believe as children. This theory has been explored further by researchers in the USA, who studied pupils’ responses to a lesson delivered by an actor whose performance was certainly entertaining and convincing. However, the content of the lesson was almost entirely fictional.2 Perhaps as expected, the pupils gave very positive evaluations of the lesson, yet they hadn’t learned anything of substance.

The article then goes on to examine other ways in which pupils may be involved in evaluating teaching quality, before concluding that they are at best unreliable judges.

As teachers, we can probably all add our own anecdotal evidence to support this conclusion. Will the easily led child who follows another child into trouble and is then chastised give the teacher a fair evaluation? Probably not, if they suspect the incident may be mentioned to a parent who will then also reprimand them. They’re probably more likely to give the teacher a slating at home in an attempt to devalue whatever the teacher may subsequently have to say to the parent. What about the quietly compliant child who is privately frustrated because they can’t keep up with their friend in class? There’s a good chance they will feel their teacher is somehow being unfair rather than look to themselves for reasons why they may not be as achieving as much as their friend.

So how can pupils contribute to the evaluation of teaching?

Most teachers would probably wish for open dialogue with the pupils in these scenarios, as the pupil’s point of view is often very informative. But for such evaluations to be taken as proof of a teacher’s effectiveness or otherwise is ludicrous. Children’s true motivations are often complex, emotionally driven and, at times, carefully concealed, so while it may be hugely beneficial for a teacher to understand the reasons why a child is behaving in a certain way, there is danger inherent in taking a child’s opinion completely at face value.

One of the aims of any decent education must be to help children learn how to make fair judgements, to understand about subjectivity and to voice opinions respectfully. Allowing children to discuss how they feel about their learning environment with members of staff and other pupils is arguably an effective way of developing these skills, particularly if they feel that their views are being taken seriously. Part of that process should include consideration of the possible impacts of an overly negative – or positive – evaluation, as well as encouraging pupils to understand how their own actions and emotional responses may have influenced their opinion unfairly.

However, creating a situation where pupils’ snapshot evaluations of teaching quality hold weight in high-stakes inspections seems irresponsible, particularly if the pupils are not required to account for their opinions. Such a situation might well foster the belief that voicing strident opinions without taking any responsibility for them is acceptable, while doing nothing to help pupils develop the skills necessary to deliver constructive feedback in the future.

A far more productive approach might be for inspectors to require schools to show that they have in place procedures for acquiring and responding to feedback from pupils, while the actual content of that feedback remains confidential.


  1. https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/inspectors-ask-pupils-judge-their-schools
  2. http://www.ofce.sciences-po.fr/blog/can-students-evaluate-teaching-quality-objectively/

How to bring life to the dullest topic on the curriculum

How to bring life to the dullest topic on the curriculum

Come on now… there are some parts of your subject that even make you want to chew off your arm to escape talking about it again. For me – it was grammar – I know, I know – I was a Head of English – but I grew up in the 80s when all English teachers did was get you to write a range of stories – mostly – from memory – with a twist in the tale.  So, I learnt grammar whilst I taught it to the kids – and a lot of the time I blatantly made it up.  There is at least three years of students at the start of my teaching career who walked away believing that hyperbole was pronounced hype-a-bowl-y rather than hi-per-bo-lee.

So – the art of teaching – which is in no way a science – is making the dull palatable.  Now – obviously just getting through it is not a high aspiration.  There are some topics where this is what we do… we might even preface the lesson with: “Sorry – we have to cover this – it is dull –let’s just get through it.” The justification is that this will be on the exam – and we say this phrase in the hope it will stop the kids eating us before the hour is over.

Therefore, it might be that we need to aspire higher – even if we can’t imagine in the first instance how this might be possible.  Maybe aim for making them curious is as a good place to begin as any – especially if you feel inspire is too much too far beyond reach.

So, let me give you an example of a topic that I used to hate… subordinate clauses… eugh.  It makes me shiver even now.  So, I decided to teach the students through descriptive writing – which I love. I love painting with words – it makes me geekily happy.  I started by build-up the sentence from a noun – we played with noun doodling.  This is pretty cool – you name things in an image – but like an artist you insist the kids see the details, the subtleties.  Then, ask them to add an adjective – a lot of adjectives to each noun – then a lot of verbs – then a lot of adverbs – with the idea of making choices about which to use to craft your sentence.  As this goes on the kids have an A3 sheet full of doodled sentences.  Then, I invited the student to select two sentences they like the best – that seem to be connected – focused on the same subject.  From here we started playing with how to link the sentences and move around the different clauses – separating the components with commas or semi-colons or hyphens.

The process from noun, to noun phrase, to sentence, to the joining up of sentences with common topics – either with a semi-colon – or when we finally got to subordinate clauses – with subordinators.  And, to be honest, by the end of the lesson even I enjoyed messing about moving my subordinate clauses from the end of the sentences, to the beginning, to the middle – considering the effect on the rhythm and flow of the description.

P.S. no-one was more surprised than me when this ended up being something more than interesting… but art is often about happy accidents I am told.